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January 31, 2014 - 4:32pm

In defense of network T.V.


HBO Nordic

Dude, you’ll love “True Detective.” It’s like the perfect mix of “Hannibal” and “The Following,” with just a dash of Coen Brothers!

Don’t watch “Looking.” I saw five minutes and it’s like “Girls,” but with gay guys.

“Parenthood” is basically “Friday Night Lights” minus football.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparisons. Oftentimes, they work as a great hook: whether in recommending a show or recapping one, mentioning familiar shows is practically unavoidable. I will admit that I’m guilty here — the only way I can reliably get people to watch “The Mindy Project” is by mentioning its similarity to “New Girl.” And comparisons almost always have a legitimate basis. Why not compare two sitcoms with a quirky female lead and her zany supportive crew?

But viewing a show in relation to others is actually quite problematic. Oftentimes, first impressions are oversimplified and way off base. Only judging its first episode, “True Detective” seemed in the same vein as “Hannibal.” But aside from the chase of an elusive serial killer, the series are actually quite different. “True Detective” ‘s investigation of traditional masculinity and gender roles is territory largely unexplored by “Hannibal,” which mines more codependent relationships and what it means to be sane. I had told a few “Hannibal” fan friends to watch “True Detective” based on that comparison, and three episodes in, I’m eating my words. The two shows couldn’t be more different. Both feature angsty men and the coincidence of antlers at a murder scene are variations of the same type, so the similarities are definitely there. But that doesn’t mean that the similarities are what defines these very different shows.

Implying that everything is a derivative of some distant original is a valid argument, but it’s pretty unromantic. The ramifications are bleak: why do we waste our time watching anything if everything is familiar and comparable? This attitude takes away from all the creative elements that make a show unique. The distinct visual style of “Sherlock” gives it a completely different viewing experience than CBS’s “Elementary,” which features the same characters and often similar cases. Pitting them against each other is unfair, because both are enjoyable in their own way and worthy of more regard than simply being competing adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

It’s especially sad that television is usually the only form of media that is viewed with this formulaic attitude. Rarely do you hear someone comparing “American Beauty” and “The Graduate.” And when two films are pitted against one another, it’s usually for intelligent debate. The two are valuable separately, because generally film is viewed as a more deliberate and somehow “smarter” medium. Music comparison is based on similarities in style, and isn’t unfairly described as blocks of tropes and situations just reshuffled for consumption like TV often is.

With critically acclaimed and popular shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” paving the way, television is on the upswing toward being legitimized. Maybe as the general public lets go of old ideas of television as a “vast wasteland” of mind-numbing trash, the great stuff it offers will be viewed as valuable on its own. No comparisons necessary.